How would the Michael Sam story play out in baseball?

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The news about Missouri defensive end Michael Sam coming out in the runup to the NFL combine is the rare football story that catches my interest. And while normally it would just be my interest, I was asked on the Erik Kuselias radio show this morning how I thought such a story would play in a baseball context. I hadn’t given it any thought until the moment I was asked, but a few minutes later I’m still fairly satisfied with my gut response.

That response: I feel like baseball would handle it pretty well. I’m not naive enough to think that no one would say something dumb or awkward, but I feel like it would be far more likely to come out of simple clumsiness than animus. The reason? Jackie Robinson, mostly.

While every sport has its integration story, none is more widely known than baseball’s. Much to baseball’s credit, every player has Jackie Robinson’s history and example drilled into them. Part of that history is Phillies’ manager Ben Chapman’s (and other bigots) role in it. I think most players and coaches are well aware of what it looks like to be on the wrong side of history. I’m not saying that example would instantly change everyone’s mind and heart — there are bigots everywhere — but I feel like most people in baseball would think a lot about what they said if, for no other reason, than no one wants to be Ben Chapman in baseball’s next civil rights story.

Another reason I think baseball would do OK if the Michael Sam story were repeated here is that, unlike in the NFL, players grow into the game over time rather than show up as preexisting stars via their college exploits. There aren’t many baseball players in Michael Sam’s position — not yet in the game but famous enough to command media attention — because most amateurs are unknowns. A baseball player at the same level of Sam’s fame would have already been considered a top prospect and would be an integral part of his team’s future. No one would ask about whether he would be a distraction or whether a team would be willing to take a chance on him. He’d have already played in the futures game and a couple levels of the minors and fans would have already spent two or three years agitating for him to get a shot on the big league roster over that veteran they’re tired of seeing. Those uncomfortable threshold questions like the ones being asked about Sam this morning — who will take a chance on him? — would be moot.

Alternatively, a player could come out when he’s in high school or college. This may lead to the same sorts of “who will take a chance on him” questions, but the leverage and attention paid to a baseball draftee is so much less than in football. Each year he leveled up — to double-A, Triple-A, etc. — there would be some interest or stories in him, but it wouldn’t be a big media explosion like I suspect the Sam stuff will be over the next couple of weeks. The big league media would see how the smaller-scale media had been handling it for a couple of years and those obviously dumb initial questions and reactions will have been played out, leading to, one hopes, a more thoughtful consideration of the player.

As with any trailblazing event, there would be interest and curiosity and ignorance and some unfortunate incidents here or there. But I feel like baseball’s far less intense scrutiny of young players in general combined with the Jackie Robinson model would make a baseball player coming out less of a thing than some might suspect it would be. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s my initial thought.

Major League Baseball needs to make an example out of José Ureña

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We’re about an hour and a half separated from the first pitch of Wednesday night’s Marlins/Braves game that featured Marlins starter José Ureña hitting Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña on the elbow with a first-pitch, 97.5 MPH fastball. The benches emptied, Ureña was ejected, and the game went on. Acuña left the game not long after to tend to his injured elbow.

After the game, when the Marlins speak to the media, they will almost certainly deny any ill intent towards Acuña, who had hit leadoff home runs in three consecutive games against them. When they do so, they will be lying. Watch how catcher J.T. Realmuto sets up on the first pitch.

ESPN Stats & Info notes that Ureña’s 97.5 MPH fastball was in the 99th percentile in terms of velocity of the 2,125 pitches he has thrown this season. It was also the fastest pitch Ureña has ever thrown to begin a game. Ureña put a little extra mustard on this pitch, for some reason.

Ureña has a 6.8 percent walk rate, which ranks 37th out of 95 starters with at least 100 innings of work this season. The major league average is eight percent. Control isn’t typically something with which he struggles.

Furthermore, Acuña isn’t the only player who has drawn Ureña’s ire:

Ureña wanted nothing to do with Hoskins — even though Hoskins has yet to get a hit off of him — in his August 4 start at home against the Phillies, walking him twice which included a few up-and-in pitches.

Ureña will almost certainly be fined and suspended for his actions on Wednesday night against Acuña. But will his punishment be enough to deter him and others from wielding a baseball as a weapon? Probably not. On June 19, when Marlins starter Dan Straily intentionally threw at Buster Posey, he received a five-game suspension and manager Don Mattingly was suspended one game. If you look at Straily’s game logs, you can’t even tell he was suspended. He started six days later on June 25 against the Diamondbacks and again on July 1 and 6. Because starters only pitch once every five days, it was like he wasn’t even suspended at all.

Major League Baseball needs to levy harsher punishments on players who attempt to injure other players. A 15-game suspension, for example, would force Ureña to miss at least two starts and it would inconvenience the Marlins enough to more seriously weigh the pros and cons of exacting revenge. The Marlins couldn’t work around it the way they did Straily by pushing back his scheduled start one day.

Major League Baseball also needs to make a legitimate effort to do away with this culture of revenge against players who are just a little bit too happy. Batters get thrown at when they flip their bats, when they yell at themselves in frustration, and even when they’re just hitting well. Baseball’s stagnating audience is very old, very white, and very male. It is not going to bring in fans from diverse backgrounds by keeping this antiquated culture that prevents baseball players from showing their personalities and being emotive. In the event Acuña needs to go on the disabled list for a couple weeks, that’s two weeks that Acuña isn’t on SportsCenter’s top-10, isn’t on the front page of MLB.com, and isn’t in articles like this. The culture of revenge is actively harming MLB’s ability to market its bright, young stars. If ending this culture of revenge doesn’t hit MLB from a moral angle, it should absolutely hit home from a business angle.